While Nina Murphy was studying wine, after days steeped in varietals and soil types and elevation and faults, she wouldn’t relax with a glass of red. Between working as a harvest hand and pouring wine in a tasting room, she was oversaturated; she felt discouraged by the state of the industry, which involved persistent issues with gatekeeping and unsustainable labor expectations. Instead, in her free time, she would pour herself cups of Junmai, Namazake, Genshu — all varieties of Japan’s most famous rice-based beverage. “Sake was my respite,” she says. “I could enjoy it with a pure heart, I wasn’t analyzing it.”
Years later, Murphy has made sake her life. After she was laid off from her job in wine distribution, she started a sake pop-up in a converted shipping container, set up in the alley next to Killingsworth wine bar and restaurant Dame. During Portland’s cold, rainy winters, locals would return to her little makeshift sake bar, sitting outside over flights and snacks. “It was a cold metal box with outdoor seating,” she says. “When people would come out on a Tuesday in the winter and sit outside, I thought, ‘Okay, we can do this.’”
Now, Murphy runs her own sake shop — potentially the city’s only bottle shop dedicated to sake. In a tiny, 300-square-foot space, Sunflower Sake sells more than 200 bottles of sake, with around 30 bottles open at any given time for glass pours and carafes. Visitors stop in for custom flights, served alongside imported Japanese drinking snacks. Murphy’s generous with her time and happy to talk through the stories behind the bottles; she even hosts drop-in classes every other week, so people can learn more about sake. For Murphy, the goal is simple: to get more Portlanders drinking sake.
“To me, I feel like sake is such an unbelievably perfect fit for this city, for our lifestyle and our climate,” she says. “Coming from a wine background, and also appreciating beer and cocktails and kombucha and the amazing fermented drinks we have in Portland, what I’d want to convey to anyone is that sake is an equally gorgeous beverage. It’s made incredibly thoughtfully.”
In certain ways, Portland is ahead of the curve, as far as the United States is concerned: In 2017, the Oregonian reported that Portland drank more sake per capita than any other major American city. Oregon is home to the country’s first major sake brewery, Sake One. And sake appears on countless drink menus and in prix fixe beverage pairings.
But Murphy thinks there’s more to explore: Sunflower Sake doesn’t focus on large-scale producers, instead prioritizing smaller labels, limited releases, and family-owned sake breweries. Pours come with stories of fifth-generation brewers, brewers who worked in wine, heirloom rice sakes, yeasts discovered by chance. For Murphy, these stories are just one of the ways she tries to make sake more accessible: She calls Junmai “the sourdough of the sake world,” and regularly features “break-even bottles,” so customers can try something they might not otherwise due to the price. Similarly, her drop-in classes cost $15, to diminish the barrier of entry for those wanting to learn more.
“Sake has a really high umami content, so it has a way of interacting with food that’s really complementary,” she says. “It has so much versatility and potential, and it can be enjoyed on a daily basis. An open bottle of sake can last for up to a month in your fridge.”
Alongside her sakes, she serves a variety of small drinking snacks — otsumami — which she imports. Snacks range from dried squid tossed with a type of Niigata chile paste called kanzuri to dried scallop skirts marinated in soy and miso.
In the future, Murphy wants to continue to host more events, like movie screenings and guest speakers; she’s also planning a winter festival in January, featuring local companies like Japanese market Fulamingo. “I wanted to bring in a lot of community members if I can,” she says. “That’s the idea.”
Sunflower Sake is located at 107 SE Washington St., #121.